It’s not every day we hear about openly gay alt-country artists. However, Indiana Queen frontman Kevin Thornton's candid way of approaching the topic should come as no suprise since Americana and roots music is a realm that tends to value honesty. And since the beginning of country music, independence has always been celebrated. In the earliest days, Jimmie Rodgers, “The Singing Brakeman,” presented a lone figure of a dying troubadour facing his fate through music. Years later, Hank Williams walked his own road, bringing blues and a clarity of vision into the mix of the mainstream country of his time. In the 1970s, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings were given the dubious title of "outlaw" in their heyday. And that mythos persists.
Raised in a Southern Indiana Baptist home and groomed to be a church youth pastor during his teen years, singer-songwriter Thornton came to terms with his sexuality early and honestly. As he developed his music, he overcame any fear or shame he may have encountered from his cultural surroundings. Indeed, during a recent phone interview from his Nashvile home, Thornton's main theme was the signficant role music played in his family life.
Thornton played music throughout his childhood and teen years. When I asked Thornton how he began making music, he seemed genuinely perplexed. “Music? It’s been my whole life,” he replied. “To this day I play my grandpa’s Gibson guitar. I honestly don’t remember not having it in my hand. I don’t remember a time.”
Thornton started playing in bands during high school. When he went to college, he spent all of his money on guitars and amps. It was during those years that he began working on his own band – developed from his solo act – simply named Thornton. Then, in 2000, he moved to Nashville with hopes of breakout success for his band. Eventually they were offered a record contract with an independent label. They were poised for success, and he never hid his sexuality. It was always simply part of who he was as an artist and a human.
“When I first came to this town,” he remembers, “I was open about my sexuality from day one. Even though back then the music community in town was pretty progressive, still people were telling me that being open and honest was a mistake and I was throwing away my career.
“Today not only Nashville, but the entire country has taken a 180-degree turn for the better,” he added, “but, I really don’t know how much you feel it in Nashville’s mainstream country music community.”
However, while Thornton’s original band came to Nashville full of hope and promise in 2000, his dreams eventually fell apart. “As we began to hit our peak,” he says, “around 2006, the music business was going through so many changes with YouTube and iTunes and all the online marketing going on. Our label folded. We got swept away in it all.”
When the band dissolved, he had to confront his own sense of disillusion. “I was heartbroken,” he admits. “I even took a job on a cruise ship for a while. But, it turned into a plus because I was able to visit 21 different countries. Then, I went to L.A. and performed. But, it seemed like it was all preparing me to go back to Nashville.”
It was from the ashes of his old band that Indiana Queen was born, and back came his old determination and confidence. The break from his music pursuit in Nashville seemed to bring him to a rebirth of his artistry and passion for the pure, honest songwriting he had developed over the years. All of this shows on Indiana Queen’s 2014 release, This I Do Carry Unto the End, which delivers diamond-like songs mined from the deepest caverns of his spirit. These are songs that could have been closed up forever by the less-than-accepting culture around him. Instead, like the true country singer-songwriter he is, Thornton opened himself up with honesty and clarity, revealing engaging, soulful, often inspiring songs. His music challenges the listener to hear and experience his spare, stripped-down lyrical reflections, rich with the pathos of Luke the Drifter and the haunting authenticity of Springsteen’s Nebraska.
With mainstream accessibility, Thornton succeeds in calling up the ghost of that great spirit of true country music outsider artists who eventually gain wider acceptance. He walks the same independent road of Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt and carries the same confidence Waylon Jennings brought to country music in the early '70s.
“With the first album, I got a lot of response, especially from the first couple of videos,” he says. “A lot of people reached out to me who were Americana and alt-country fans, writing me letters, telling me they were gay and it was good to hear someone expressing these things in music they could identify with.”
According to Thornton, Indiana Queen’s new album, Be My Man, will bring a more folky sound with country leanings. They're raising funds for the disc on PledgeMusic, and Thornton hopes it will expand his audience. But, more than anything else, his greatest hope is to get back on the road. His plan for Indiana Queen is to release the best music possible while building a national audience. Then, he’s anxious to connect again with a live audience. It is a solid strategy for a band that appears to be ready for the kind of success their music deserves.